Torpy at Large: Some see an ugly agenda to MLK Drive beautification

Credit: By Bill Torpy

Credit: By Bill Torpy

For months now, there’s been a steady drip, drip, drip of complaints concerning the $38 million effort to fix up Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Sure, the expensive and expansive project is meant to tidy up a mostly sad and tired corridor named for Atlanta’s most famous son.

But many residents complain they’ve been dealt a dose of social engineering, a plan fresh out of the new urbanism handbook to throttle traffic, add bike lanes and empower pedestrians. It’s the wave of the future for reconfiguring streets across Atlanta — busy thoroughfares that handle traffic.

Back in February, more than 200 residents gathered at the CT Martin Rec Center on the southwest side to let Atlanta officials have it because of delays in improving roads and sidewalks.

Resident Russell McCray said the crowd wanted much-needed improvements on Cascade Road. Then he added, “But we don’t want what they did on MLK,” referring to how long stretches of that road went from two lanes to one, and how new medians have made ingress and egress difficult for dozens of households.

“Some people felt it was shoved down their throat,” he said.

Resident Curtis McHardy, also at the February meeting, used MLK Drive as a cautionary tale of what not to do on Cascade: “I don’t know what kind of mad scientist you have there. No one thought out how traffic moves. The lane reductions are making traffic worse.”

A couple of months ago, the Rev. Herman “Skip” Mason, pastor of the West Mitchell Street CME Church near Mercedes-Benz Stadium, griped how the “improvements” were making it hard to get in and out of his church.

And last week, I was contacted by some ladies who have formed a group to address the issue. They call the process to fix up the street — and the results — confusing, frustrating and maddening.

The road needed resurfacing, sidewalk improvements and strategically placed crosswalks, they say. But "there was no need to turn four lanes of thoroughfare into two," said Maria Mickens, a member of the MLK Jr. Drive Task Force, which started more than a year ago.

Chris Lloyd, a retired police accounting worker and a leader of the group, said, “It started as a beautification project and then turned into a traffic reduction and speed reduction project.”

“It’s become a big deal here,” she added. “The consensus is that everybody is against the medians.”

Not everybody, but it seems pretty close.

Medians are growing in popularity all over as safe havens for pedestrians trying to survive crossing busy multilane roads. There's some of that along MLK, especially further west on the road as you head out to I-285 and where MLK is a state highway. But along several blocks of the city's portion closer to downtown, the median serves as almost a protective wall — "protecting" many residents from entering their own driveways.

Robert Hill, who lives about 2 miles west of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, now cannot turn left out of his driveway if he wants to head downtown. Nor can he turn left into his driveway if heading east along MLK because of the mini-wall.

“We’re sure not happy about it,” he told me while pulling his garbage can up his driveway. “To get out, we have to go a few blocks out of our way.”

He said it makes it harder for his wife to get to dialysis treatments. Also, he gets more clogged traffic in front of his house during rush hours. “There used to be two lanes in front of our house. Now there’s one.”

I was driven around by Lloyd and Jackye Rhodes, a retired Atlanta school math-teacher-turned activist — at least on this issue.

During our tour, we saw at least six cars U-turning because of the medians.

The two women also drove around with the Fire Department in August because there are concerns about firetrucks turning the now-tight corners or having trouble accessing houses because of the median.

“As problems occur, they try to fix them, but that’s not how you do a multimillion-dollar project,” said Rhodes. “They are spending money but not spending it wisely.”

Also, Lloyd, like many other residents, believes the effort goes hand in hand with gentrification. “We think they have future residents in mind, not current residents,” she said.

Jacob Tzegaegbe, a senior transportation policy adviser for the city, said about $25 million of the project cost is coming from city funds and about $13 million from federal sources. The work goes 7.2 miles west from Northside Drive near downtown to Fulton Industrial Boulevard.

In 2015, the city created a $250 million Renew Atlanta bond. And in 2016, voters passed a sales tax to raise perhaps $300 million more for infrastructure needs. However, there is way more than $1 billion in infrastructure needs. And so, the city must repeatedly say “No” to residents as it tries to spread the projects around the city.

Tzegaegbe said the medians were built because MLK Jr. Drive is a relatively dangerous stretch of road that averages more than two accidents a day. The medians help pedestrians in some cases and stop left-hand turns in areas where engineers believe there are potential traffic conflicts that could cause wrecks.

The “traffic calming” — cutting two lanes to one — is not meant to clog traffic, Tzegaegbe said. But it is meant to slow it down. A little “behavior change” is in order, he said.

“Two lanes did not encourage people to drive the 35 mph speed limit,” he said.

That’s 35 for now. There’s an effort afoot to slow it to 25 mph. Or even 20. Seriously.

As I said earlier, not everyone opposes the plans. A few weeks ago, I stopped and talked with Darryl Allen, a resident of 20-plus years who lives in a house off MLK.

“People are still raising hell about this? Why?” he asked. “I love it. It slows traffic down. It was like the Indianapolis 500.”

"And," he added, "wouldn't it be nice to have a nice Martin Luther King Drive in this country? Most look like hell."

He said the neighborhood is changing, with white people moving in. I told him of the complaints I’d been hearing.

He shrugged. “Change is sometimes painful,” he said.